Reply All: E-Mail's Third Rail?

ImageIf your work life is like mine, it involves a great agglomeration of e-mail messages. And unless you have ample free time to contain its bulk, your in-box can come to resemble a shambling Tower of Babble.

Such swelling is often attributable to group gabfests. These may stem from work projects, attempts to plan a vacation for six or spirited post-movie debates (Black Swan: ridiculous, sublime or both?). In any case, maddening reams of unwanted messages often result from the misuse of an apparently innocuous little "button" called reply all.

Unwitting or careless use of reply all spawns much mischief, from the accidental broadcasting of remarks intended for only select recipients to the dreaded "e-storm," whereby an innocent note to the wrong list unleashes wave after wave of indignant, "helpful" and other replies (and risks crashing even capacious servers). More often than not, though, it means a zillion messages reading simply "thanks" or "LOL" or ";)".

In plenty of instances one is ill-advised to use reply all (see above), while in others, NOT using it leads to trouble (when participants in a thread aren't "looped" because somebody just hit "reply," responding only to the sender of the prior message).

Being a good group e-mailer often boils down to taking the extra five seconds to consider whether your reply is useful, germane and/or respectful of others' feelings and time. When composing an e-mail intended for multiple recipients, you can also add a request to NOT hit reply all, as frequent victims of in-box bloat have learned to do. Hiding the group's addresses in the BCC field tends to defuse the issue as well.

As myriad guides to the dos and don'ts of reply all can be found online (Gawker's is my favorite; sample: "You're not adding anything to the conversation, so just cram another Lemon Bar into your piehole and keep quiet"), I thought I'd simply relate a few thoughts on the personal dynamics underlying its use.

A group thread, even if you're participating in your Paul Frank jammies, is a public forum. It's a means of sharing information and opinion, but unlike at a face-to-face meeting, your comments don't evaporate once expressed. They go into a vast record, one that everyone else must wrangle.

I know that I communicate differently in such settings than I do in the looser confines of one-on-one e-mail. At times I find myself attempting to give my heavily CC'd missives a bit more gravitas with a seemingly learned insight or even, heaven help me, a "zinger." I'm wired to seek approval, whether in rabbinical or borscht-belt mode, so even though it's a pain to delete those "ha ha has" and "well saids" and winky emoticons, I relish every one.

I get irritated when people actually do the things I'm itching to do but don't. Which in turn makes me want to send cranky, snarky, know-it-all replies.

I'm similarly tempted to spray the entire group with applause when someone else says something apt or amusing, though digital deacons dictate that such approval should go to the author alone. I want everyone to witness the accolades.

I get irritated when people actually do the things I'm itching to do but don't. Which in turn makes me want to send cranky, snarky, know-it-all replies. I sometimes even draft such responses in high dudgeon, hammering out a few paragraphs of doctorly derision before the better angels of my nature touch down on the delete button. The impulse to burn someone publicly is sometimes overpowering, but I've never regretted resisting it.

I've also been inclined to be one of the "helpful" types who make e-mail storms that much worse, gratuitously schooling folks on the gratuitousness of their input (or simply reminding them to copy the whole group when the info warrants it).

But rising above such temptation and the associated logorrheic lures of group e-mail threads usually turns out to be the most eloquent expression of all. In other words, better not to reply and be thought a fool than hit reply all and remove all doubt.

What about you, dear reader? Do you have reply-all revelations to share? This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it — we promise not to circulate them too widely.